plague diary: life is nuts

Victoria Ward

A few years ago someone posted on Facebook a photo and text about the Spanish Flu 1918-20.  They wrote in disbelief that this pandemic may have killed up to 50 million people worldwide – had anyone else heard of it?  It isn’t possible to read literature from the early part of the 20th century without reading about the Spanish Flu. However the fact that to a lot of people it seems to reside somewhere between a Jeopardy answer and some mentions on period dramas on Netflix means that for whatever reason, its impact doesn’t match other life altering events like the first and second world war.  And yet as we all know now, a pandemic totally does alter everyone’s life – rapidly and completely.  

We may not have a Guernica or King Lear yet to define COVID19 but we do have the casualties and the misery.   This year I will not have seen my family in over twelve months. I have not been within 100 km of Toronto in a year. I feel like I am purgatory.  Permanent weird purgatory. With snacks. And the internet. 

I haven’t gotten sick but I now know two people who have. Both have recovered however the experience left them shaken and vigilant.  I’ve also known two people who left this world during the virus perhaps being so deeply triggered by it, they felt it was a sign.  I have family members who work in healthcare. Several with children in school. I have a sister overseas.  Like most people I know a bit about every experience there is during the plague. 

And yet, I am ever so removed from the plague as well.  I have no neighbours so I rarely see anyone on a daily basis. Our trips to town or to social distance socialize are the same as they used to be albeit with masks and hand sanitizing.  For me, the pandemic reaches us only through media; the internet or talking on the phone with people. Yeah, we still do that. In fact my partner called every person he knows over the holidays. Alphabetically. Covid19 is both real and not real for me.  Because of this I am at a bigger distance from it than my city friends – psychologically and physically.  

Why did the Spanish Flu not inspire vast works of art and genius?  Was it that day to day dealing with it meant that the last thing anybody wanted to do was write or draw anything about it? Or was it that,  much like the circumstances I find myself in, it’s a deeply odd psychological experience – that being “together apart” as the phrase is used is troubling but not troubling enough.  Hard to tell.  All I can do is muster some sensitivity to others, keep a lid on my own anxiety and reckon with an isolation akin and yet totally different than I’ve been used to these last twenty years. 

My road last January just before the virus. It looks exactly the same right now with a ton more snow. Nature’s indifference and all that…

The virus has changed everything and yet, we’ve tried to keep being the same. It’s a crazy existential place to be. I lie awake at night and think about why I haven’t just given up; why am I not just drinking my way through this thing? Why do I wake up every day and want to make it a great day regardless. Where the hell does that come from? It’s hard to know if I am delusional, in heightened self preservation mode or just waiting. Endlessly waiting.

Vaccines are here! But I still feel like I am in a production of Waiting for Godot. Speaking of which, as a side note, I really feel like we are being bullied into pivoting to digital while we wait to attend things like in the before times. I have stood fast against this tide and resisted the stampede to put everything online. I get it, people are scrambling to keep their doors open, keep their jobs. But digital is NOT a one-fix-all solution. Plus, the monetizing model that presently exists is nasty. But I digress…

During all this contemplation one of my favourite artists Adam Curtis released Can’t Get You Out of My Head. A seven hour rambling, mesmerizing video opus on ‘why the world is so darn complicated’. It was like crawling under a big blanket and forgetting about the world while totally being immersed in it. His films, a barrage of ideas and archival footage are trippy, fun, dark and yet hopeful.

People, he suggests, are not completely sure what being human is so we tend to cling to all sorts of things to get through life. We feel and think one way but the world around us is something else again. Complex systems are now our only shared experience because we can’t agree on any kind of reality – and this has gotten worse. It was a remarkable thing to view whilst in a quandary about the state of things.

Oddly the film made me feel so much better about the pandemic. As a devout absurdist who down deep doesn’t think anything really matters except love, I felt relieved. It was like getting permission to remember existence is weird. Finally a reason to live! Life is nuts, get on with it.

In a world of cool RM Vaughan was warm

Victoria Ward

“Exposure doesn’t fix anything,” I remember RM Vaughan saying on a CBC bit years ago.  He was one of those media pundits for a time and added an edge to the panel who essentially gathered every week to discuss crazy cultural things.   RM was found dead last week in New Brunswick from an apparent suicide.  I am, like many still in shock.  Like many more articulate than I who have been sharing their thoughts on him, here is some of my initial thinking. 

He and I shared a few things in common; we both felt that class played an integral role in the success of artists in Canada, that platforms like Facebook were completely changing the way people interacted with art and art making, and that thinking anything actually mattered more than love in this world was insane.  

I remember at an exhibition at Olga Korper’s a few years ago Richard said to me under his breath, “I get that artists deserve to make an income but only a handful of people on this earth can buy a thirty thousand dollar painting.  Why are we all part of keeping this world alive?”  That and many, many other discussions permeated my experience with him.  More often than not I agreed however when I didn’t I made him smile as my opinions I could tell made him think even if he didn’t agree.  He was like that – open minded.  He was a wonderful adversary in many ways because we both knew we were on the same side, even though I had a lot more faith in institutions and business than he did.  But I was luckier than him. I was a cute, white chick with biological parents who wanted me.   You win the lottery right there really.  

Ultimately though Richard, like so many people have said over the last few days, was an enormous booster of mine too.  He asked nothing in return. Ever. He was just unconditional and supportive of what I was doing. 

But back to his comment, “Exposure doesn’t fix anything.” Or something like that. He meant that being seen, being trended was fleeting, a part of the mixed up social media scramble to make something stick – and make something stick quickly. No one understood this better than RM. I wish he had wrote more about it but in my opinion he was the most eloquent writer about digital in Canada. He took one look at these things, these online platforms where hubris and nihilism have come to reign and realized right away that though they allowed for so many more voices desperately needed in a tiny meritocracy like the Canadian contemporary art world, ultimately they were not going to directly solve any of our problems.

I got to know Richard like most people, in the 90s at Buddies. Over time we came to be fairly good friends however I saw him more often than not with the extraordinary Kirsten Johnson – an artist who deserves, like Richard did to be a much, much bigger deal in this country. In many ways she is our Cindy Sherman. They were two peas in a pod. Loved each other. Kirsten has these fantastic parties where just about everyone is extraordinary, like ‘Paris in the 20s’. Richard was a constant fixture and always with something he just made for her or a box of dollar store things he would hand out. These are two people who made me realize in art there can be love.

I have such a strong memory of Richard smiling warmly at me when I once drunkenly tried to say he was like our Alfred Stieglitz but couldn’t pronounce the name correctly. He patiently corrected me three or four times.

His life as an essayist was not without drama. Something I was grateful for – us Canadians tend to never want to rock the canoe. A few years ago Richard had the audacity to suggest that there was a financial hierarchy in the art world and that artists were at the bottom of a pyramid of administrators and bureaucrats. The article touched off a firestorm I had not seen in my community in years until the current pandemic. Whether or not you agreed with his premise, he began a conversation that did not exist prior. I actually don’t think basic income would be taking off in the art community had RM not pointed out how important it is for artists to make some kind of regular income. He underscored precarity with controversy. Audacious yes, and brave.

Richard was always only ever trying to help. He saw inequality everywhere and felt we all needed to try harder to make things fair. He also saw creativity everywhere too. This to me is a gift. Bored during the pandemic he created dioramas for squirrels to interact with, he posted politicians with their kindred spirits (Erin O’Toole a potato, Justin Trudeau an otter), and essentially jumped on Facebook threads to flirt, add bon mots and make us all laugh. Sometimes out loud. No one was funnier.

Courage, intelligence, eloquence and wit above everyone is how I think of Richard. Anyone who can leave New Brunswick as a young, gay outsider, make their way to cold, hipster Toronto and end up published, celebrated, in the national news paper and on the CBC has a kind of moxy that will be sorely missed. But mostly it was love I felt when I was with him, his warmth. In a world of cool he was warm.

I live in a log cabin in the Canadian Boreal forest. By choice.